By: Muriam Haleh Davis, Thomas Serres, and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)
Algeria, currently ruled by the ailing fourth-term president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, often appears as a frozen polity, where a gerontocracy controls most of the resources with the support of the army. Yet, it briefly came into the media spotlight in 2011, when the country experienced a short-lived wave of protests in the framework of the so-called Arab Spring. After this episode, discussions of whether Algeria was an “exceptional” case in the MENA region focused on the population’s desire for stability after two particularly violent episodes in the twentieth century: the Algerian war of Independence (1954-1962) and the Algerian Civil War (1992-2001). At the same time, as scholars of the country have noted, one should not to reduce Algeria to an alleged history of violence. These readings thus provide insight into the various cultural, economic, and social dynamics that shaped the country before and after colonization.
France invaded Algeria in 1830, and Algeria became three French departments in 1848, which set Algeria apart from France’s other colonies in Asia and Africa, including the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. The Algerian War of Independence provided a model for Anti-Colonial or Third-Worldist guerrilla warfare, and a model for French and American theories of counterinsurgency (see Laleh Khalili’s entry). The first five books study a number of questions tied to settler colonialism: namely, the economic and cultural aspects of French rule as well as the possibilities and modalities of resistance. How did the French occupation evolve into a political system that gave settlers not only a monopoly on the land and political power, but also a distinctive pied-noir identity? How did Algerians use the different possibilities of resistance that were available to them leading up to the War? What was the nationalist party, the FLN’s (National Liberation Front) vision for a revolutionary, socialist, and Muslim nation-state? Indeed, the rule of Houari Boumédiène (1962-1978) represented a high point of Algerian Third Worldism, when a developmental state gained international prestige, even as economic and social frustrations simmered under the surface.
The second half of this list is dedicated to research that elucidates Algeria’s contemporary trajectory after the collapse of the one-party system. The 1980s were a time of unrest, which spectacularly exploded in the riots of October 1988 and the rise of political Islam, which led to the cancellation of the legislative elections of 1991. The Civil War saw the death of between 100,000 to 200,000 individuals, a violence that was accompanied by pervasive uncertainty and social fragmentation. While discussions of this period have often focused on the question of “qui tue qui?” (who has killed who), or opaque description of le pouvoir and the omnipotent intelligence apparatus (the DRS, dissolved in 2015), the books listed here attempt to grapple with the concrete workings of Algerian political system during and after the so-called Black decade. Rather than looking at a frozen political system, these readings elucidate the various changes in the national and local power structure, as well as in social movements and popular culture.
James McDougall, A History of Algeria: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Anyone interested in the history or present of Algeria should start with this comprehensive study of Algeria which covers 500 years of history, from the Ottomans to the present. Much more than a textbook, McDougall skillfully documents key moments of Algeria in all of their complexity, including the War of Independence and the Civil War. McDougall’s account is both thorough and readable, and he does an admirable job of integrating cultural phenomenon and drawing on cutting-edge scholarship.
Julia Clancy Smith, Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800-1904). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Julia Clancy Smith examines the strategies of negotiation, compliance and resistance of North Africans as they faced the realities of colonial occupation. Focusing on the porous border between Algeria and Tunisia, she studies the Bu-Ziyan 1849 revolt, the Sharif of Warqala’s Jihad (1850–1866) and Sidi Muhammad’s daughter Zaynab, she is able to show the myriad ways in which political, religious, and societal influence were negotiated. What emerges from her account is not only a reworking of traditional concepts such as that of the mahdi, hijra, and jihad, but also an understanding of the various forms of mobility, circulation, and communication that structured these networks.
Mohammed Harbi and Gilbert Meynier, Le FLN: documents et histoire. Paris: Fayard, 2005.
This collection of documents is a follow up to Gilbert Meynier’s Histoire intérieure du FLN. It covers several fundamental aspects for understanding the strategy and ideology of the FLN, and the publication of original sources is especially valuable given the relative paucity of archival sources for the Algerian Revolution and its aftermath. This volume thus allows us to follow the debates and concerns of the Algerian nationalists themselves including the role of the war and the quotidian functioning of the ALN and FLN.
Prochaska, David. Making Algeria French: Colonialism in Bône, 1870–1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Although this work focuses on the city of Bône (now Annaba), it is essential reading for those who want to understand the culture and politics of settler colonialism in Algeria. In highlighting the specific nature of colonial Algeria as European rather than French, Prochaska introduces a crucial third element into the Algerian/French equation. His central claim is that “In making Bône a European city in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…the settlers blocked social evolution, attempted to constrain history, and precluded thereby any genuine rapprochement with the Algerians in the nineteenth century” (p. 26). In documenting this process, he not only elucidates the economic and cultural ramifications of this so-called colonial “melting pot,” but he also shows how the Italians, Maltese, and Spanish who lived in Bône were also impacted by French colonization.
Jeffrey Byrne. Algiers: Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
This important work charts the history of the Algerian nation-state as it became the global capital for revolutionary movements around the world. Byrne’s access to Algerian documents enables him to tell a fascinating story of south-south networks, including Algeria’s relationship with Cuba, Moscow, China, the Belgian Congo, and the OAU (the Organization of African Unity), as well as its North African neighbors. This work also highlights the tension that emerged between leaders of the Third World movement, most notably between Algerian President from 1965-1978, Houari Boumédiène and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Luis Martinez, 2000, The Algerian Civil War, New York, Columbia University Press.
Published in French in 1998, this work was translated into English in 2000 and remains a must-read for those seeking to understand the political, economic and cultural dynamics of the Algerian “Black Decade.” Martinez describes the rising violence on both sides and its hybridization with economic interests and banditry. While acknowledging that violence has become a way for the regime to manage the polity, he pays a special attention to the constitution and fragmentation of the Islamic insurgency. Despite an occasionally culturalist approach, the first-hand material provided by this monograph makes it essential reading for understanding this period as well as the resulting social fragmentation and high value that continues to be attached to stability and social peace in the country.
Hugh Roberts, 2003, The Battlefield : Algeria 1988-2002. Studies in a Broken Polity, London and New York: Verso.
This collection of essays published by Hugh Roberts between 1988 and 2002 offers a comprehensive overview of the period by looking at the political, cultural and economic dynamics that shaped the Black Decade. One of the most renowned experts of the country, Roberts describes a complex configuration and refuses to summarize the violence to a struggle opposing a secular state to a fundamentalist guerrilla. The successive essays analyze the logic driving the actions of a myriad of factions and pays a special attention to the responsibility of the “military-technocratic oligarchy” during the period. Broadening the scope of its analysis, the book also looks at the role of foreign actors such as France, and its influence on the military elite, or the IMF, as a key force guiding the process of economic restructuring. Without falling in the trap of democratization wishful thinking that was characteristic of the 1990s, Roberts also studies the constitutionalization of the political game after 1999.
Werenfels, Isabelle, 2007, Managing Instability in Algeria: Elites and Political Change since 1995, London: Routledge.
Isabelle Werenfels book is one of the first comprehensive studies of the Algerian regime under Bouteflika. By drawing on a remarkable fieldwork and more than a hundred interviews with members of the “politically relevant elites” (divided in three circles and therefore three levels of influence), this work elucidates the fragmentation of the Algerian political system. Werenfels describes a structure of power where the precariousness of these actors serves the overall stability, where the difficulty to establish an actual chain of command serves the irresponsibility of key players, in the bureaucracy and the government. Despite a sometimes-rigid conceptual apparatus, this book manages to account for the integration of opposition members in the Algerian culture and to underline the emergence of a new generation of relevant actors. It remains a key reading to understand.
Mohammed Hachemaoui, 2013, Clientélisme et Patronnage dans l’Algérie contemporaine, Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Karthala, Iremam
Complementary to Werenfels’ work on the politically relevant elites in Algeria is Mohammed Hachemaoui’s Clientélisme et Patronnage dans l’Algérie contemporaine. While the book has only been published in French and suffers from the author’s tendency to delve in superfluous theoretical discussions, it remains a necessary reading for whoever wants to understand the reproduction and diversification of the Algerian power structure under Bouteflika. Its main strength is to propose an analysis from below that takes into account the diverse economic and cultural dynamics that shape local politics. Focusing on the wilayate (governorates) of Tebessa and Adrar, Hachemaoui’s studies provides us with substantial ethnographical material to understand the establishment of networks of clientelism and the strategies employed by local big men. Moreover, it proposes a welcome analysis of a “reinvention of tradition” that responds to the successive disruptions experienced by the country.
Patrick Crowley (ed), 2017, Algeria, Nation, Culture and Transnationalism, 1988-2015, Liverpool : University of Liverpool Press.
This volume edited by Patrick Crowley looks at the current state of the country by drawing on cultural studies and historical analysis. It proposes a series of case studies on the representations of contemporary Algeria and their political meanings, with the objective of challenging any political discourse that homogenizes the idea of “Algerianity.” From a pedagogical perspective, this is a useful resource to understand the role of dominant narratives and key historical references, as well as the formulation of alternative discourses. It is especially effective in challenging the twin narratives presenting a country plagues by “violence” and “culture wars.” Last but not least, the volume offers of collection of contribution that illuminates a wide range of issues such as the meanings associated to the memories of the 1970s, the artistic use of audiovidual documents to fight institutional amnesia, the appropriation of the arts of movements (parkour, street dance) by the Algerian youth or the political functions of sports and especially football. Therefore, the book edited by Crowley is a crucial resource to introduce students to the diversity of the country.